How Literally Do Members Take the Church’s Truth Claims?

Stephen Cranney and Josh Coates

This is one of a series of posts discussing results from a recent survey of current and former Latter-day Saints conducted by the BH Roberts Foundation. The technical details are in the full methodology report here

Occasionally in Latter-day Saint discourse people that have lost their testimonies of the Church’s truth claims float the idea that perhaps they could salvage their belief in the Church if it was made to be more allegorical and less literal.

At the outset we admit our own perspective that, while we respect people’s different beliefs and ways of making the Church work for them, this wouldn’t really work at scale, and that for the Church to actual continuing functioning as a living, breathing, growing faith, and not just a cultural relic of a bygone sociocultural movement of a kind of “descendents of the Mormon pioneers” lineage-based service organization, it has to not only hold to its literal truth claims, but to actively promote and defend them.

The Community of Christ, for example, does not have a position on the historicity of the Book of Mormon (or of many historical questions in general). The ambivalence of leadership towards actively promoting literal truth claims is undoubtedly sensed by the membership, who follow suit. (And as an aside, contrary to widespread missionary folklore, they did not “renounce” the Book of Mormon to be accepted by mainstream Protestants.)

Of course, how common the allegorical view of Latter-day Saint belief is, is an open question, and there is a very real chance that the influence of this group is biased by their being overrepresented in the scholarly Latter-day Saint and Very Online Mormon community. And so we decided to ask about two very central truth claims that the Church makes: Book of Mormon historicity and the First Vision.  

 

Which of the following best describes your belief?

  • I believe the Book of Mormon is a true record of ancient people who actually existed. 
  • I believe the Book of Mormon is writing inspired by God, but there weren’t actually any literal Nephites or Lamanites. 
  • The Book of Mormon is uninspired fiction. 
  • I’m undecided on what I believe. 

 

Joseph Smith literally saw God the Father and Jesus Christ.

  • Strongly disagree
  • Disagree
  • Somewhat disagree
  • Neither agree nor disagree
  • Somewhat agree
  • Agree
  • Strongly agree

 

We were also interested in looking at the combination of these two questions. For example, do people who hold to a more allegorical interpretation of the Book of Mormon hold to the reality of the First Vision? Or does the allegorical approach map onto a more generic lack of confidence in any supernatural aspect to the Church’s truth claims? 

 

We find that: 

  1. People who hold that the Book of Mormon is inspired-but-not-historical are a small fraction, about 2-5% of members, with the most being found in the non-Mormon Corridor, Facebook sample. 
  2. About 6-9% of our sample are agnostic towards Book of Mormon historicity. 
  3. Only 1-2% hold that the Book of Mormon is uninspired fiction. 

On the First Vision, about 5% of members disagree that Joseph Smith literally saw God, about 4% appear to have a sort of agnostic attitude about it, with the rest agreeing to some extent. With about ¾ “strongly agreeing” that he did. 

However, while the sample sizes are quite small, a good chunk of the “inspired but not historical” crowd do believe that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ. Of the “inspired but not historically true” respondents, about half of them agree to some extent that Joseph Smith saw God and about 20-30% of them neither agree nor disagree. Of people who agree that the Book of Mormon is historical, 80-85% of them strongly agree that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ. 

So while there do appear to be some in the Church that have found a way to make the Church’s truth claims work by taking a more allegorical perspective, this does not appear to be widespread, and we suspect that most people who lose faith in the historicity of the Book of Mormon or the First Vision typically leave the Church.





11 comments for “How Literally Do Members Take the Church’s Truth Claims?

  1. As long as we culturally frame these issues in “all or nothing” ways, results like that are inevitable. When there’s no visible diversity of opinion within the community as to whether, say, the Book of Mormon is historical (in a strong sense), those who conclude that it is not won’t feel like they belong. They’ll leave and the literalists will remain, further reinforcing the prevailing literalism. Is that what we want? To see individuals and whole households of members leave, because their perception is that the core of our community is not the practical theology embodied in our scripture, but unshakeable commitment to historical reality of Nephites and Lamanites? Speaking for myself, I find that tragic and worth trying to stop.

  2. I think that once people start doubting that either of those two main beliefs are not literally true, they are on their way out. It is hard to stay active as a nuanced Mormon, amid all the Mormons with very fundamentalist beliefs. When you start doubting those two ideas, and actually investigate, it is a slippery slope all the way out. It is HARD to be active and not believe it all. The church actively pushes out anyone who does not believe those two main ideas. You can believe parts of the Bible are allegorical, but don’t bring that up in Sunday school. And you can quietly believe in gay marriage of women’s ordination. But once you stop believing those two main ideas, the church starts to push you out. I only had serious doubts about Joseph Smith actually seeing God and found it VERY hard to stay active. I finally gave it all up when I went 15 years with no calling and no friends.

    It is HARD to be active and not believe it all. The church actively pushes out anyone who does not believe those two main ideas. You can believe parts of the Bible are allegorical, but don’t bring that up in Sunday school. And you can quietly believe in gay marriage of women’s ordination. But once you stop believing those two main ideas, the church starts to push you out. I only had serious doubts about Joseph Smith actually seeing God and found it VERY hard to stay active. I finally gave it all up when I went 15 years with no calling and no friends. Why stick around when they obviously don’t want me? Even if I love the church and still believe a lot of it that other Christian churches do not believe. And I only had DOUBTS, I didn’t really stop believing those two ideas until after I quit going

    And, it doesn’t surprise me at all that those who still identify as Mormon by your survey’s parameters, are almost all true believers in those two very basic ideas. Your survey selects for Mormons who are totally in, and then you prove that almost all Mormons are totally in. Your survey would not find Mormons like me who consider themselves Mormon but have stopped believing some or most of the truth claims. My husband is a believer, and I love him, and attend with him some of the time, and culturally I am still Mormon. They are my people, not just because I am descended from pioneer stock in all of my ancestors, or because I grew up Mormon, or because I still believe half of it, but for all those reasons plus it is still my culture. I have friends who are totally in, friends who are bitterly out, and some who are one foot still in the door like me, as well as many nonmembers.

    I don’t know how to suggest a better way to pick up cultural Mormons.

  3. There’s a lot of grey area between BoM being an ancient record and being a 19th century production.

    Folks like Gardner have some nuance on explanation and Ostlers expansion theory for example.

  4. Jonathan, no one has claimed that the Church actively pushes out such people. Nor does it openly welcome them or publicly model viewpoint diversity that would make their fitting in unquestioned.

  5. For me, it generally works better to work with the scripture accounts as true.

    For example, I am unable to authoritatively argue one way or the other on the matter of whether King Herod was still alive or already dead when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. I am aware to some degree of both the scripture account and the historical record, but I won’t argue with any passion for or against either side. For me, it generally works better to work with the scripture account as true.

    What matters to me is that I have decided that faith in Jesus Christ important to me, and I rejoice both in his lived life on earth and the restoration in these latter days. This faith affects how I act towards my God and my neighbors, and that faith-driven action seems to be of paramount importance. I want to have fellowship with others who are faithful, so I generally try to attend church meetings on Sundays.

    I think teachers in church settings should respect the faith foundations of the church and its members, and try to build faith in others, but I really don’t see any necessity in forcing an opinion on the historicity of a story onto one’s neighbor, nor in demanding an opinion on historicity from that neighbor. There is room for some charity here.

    I think declaring all scripture to be allegory would be error. However, it is entirely possible that there is some allegory within scripture.

    I think that perhaps those on either side who insist the most vigorously on the absolute rightness of their side might be weak in charity.

  6. MoPo: FWIW: I think the ideal would be for the historicist view to be the mainstream of the Church, but for there to be ample room for diverging views for those in non-authority positions. I suspect we can get there without too much effort because, like I mentioned, once you don’t believe the truth claims the allure of a free Sunday and 10% of your income is quite enticing, so it’s just a matter of the historicists being tolerant.

    Anna: We asked for people who identified as member of the COCJLDS, so presumably we would pick up cultural members as long as they identified as members.

    Jpv: I absolutely agree. We tried to gradate the question into natural tiers, but there’s a lot of variation within those tiers. However, believing in, say, a loose translation where 19th century concepts crept in at the intersection between Joseph Smith and the text, or a not-accurate history where some of the Jaredite history may have just been legends among the Nephites, is fundamentally different from not believing that the civilizations in the BoM existed at all and it’s all allegory. That seems like a pretty important distinction and not just a matter of degree different from believing that some of the BoM historians got some things wrong.

    Ji: Amen.

  7. Stephen, “room for diverging views for those in non-authority positions” is where we are now. Anyone who makes the mistake of voicing a heterodox opinion may be closing the door on leadership or instructional callings. (Depending on where you are, the range of beliefs that might lead to such informal blackballing is quite wide.) It reinforces fundamentalism. If you see that as a feature, so be it. I respectfully disagree.

  8. I’m happy for people to believe for the best reason they can come up with. I want everyone to stay. Even so, the church as a whole must maintain its identity in accordance with the will of heaven as revealed to the apostles. And that means, so far as I can tell, that certain claims are to be taken literally while others may land in the grey area between allegorical and literal.

  9. I firmly believe that that the Book of Mormon is a record of an ancient people and that Joseph Smith literally saw God the Father and Jesus Christ. And it is my experience that most, though not all, of those who start to think otherwise soon fall away. But perhaps the most strikingly unorthodox idea in this thread is members making up standards for who should be called to positions of authority. “I think the ideal would be…for there to be ample room for diverging views for those in non-authority positions” is basically saying those with “diverging views” are second class citizens in the kingdom, tolerated but not to be given any real responsibility. None of the temple recommend interview questions nor any of our covenants say anything about Book of Mormon historicity or the First Vision. We all “diverge” from the example of Christ in various ways, and we should be grateful all are fully welcome in God’s kingdom.

    Leave it to the Lord. If you’re right, the Lord will take care of it without making anyone feel unwelcome. If you’re wrong, you’re setting yourself up for a faith crisis when the Lord calls a bishop, a communications director, or worse who doesn’t meet your standards.

  10. -those with “diverging views” are second class citizens in the kingdom, tolerated but not to be given any real responsibility.-

    As someone who is in this position (active but not a historicity beleiver) this is exactly how I’m treated. I’m not offended by this. I have plenty of meaningful responsibilities outside the church. But let’s not pretend it isn’t true.

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